Growing up in Marietta, Georgia, I was a proud liberal. Like my parents, a blue dog Democrat. At a young age, I didn’t necessarily know what being a liberal meant, but I rubbed it in the faces of my classmates, who, like their parents, identified as conservatives. We enjoyed engaging in debates, as if any of us really knew President Bush’s motivation to invade Iraq or whether or not Al Gore had really won the election. Being a liberal, nonetheless, made me unique. I wore it proudly like a scarlet “L” emblazoned on my being.
In high school, even before I could vote, I felt proud watching President Obama’s inauguration. While my conservative classmates made snide comments about the apparent apocalypse on the horizon, I lauded myself and people like myself for being open-minded, for being liberal. Upon my arrival at Penn in 2011, one of the first things I did was register to vote. My mom used to joke that I would register in Pennsylvania and not my home state of Georgia, so that “my vote would actually count.” Finally, I would be in a place surrounded by other, liberal-minded people like myself.
Being a liberal on a college campus like Penn, however, is not as simple as it was in my conservative hometown. Being liberal used to mean expressing my left-leaning views while also respecting others’ right to express theirs, despite the fact that theirs may differ from mine. The “liberal” I have encountered on this college campus, however, disdains any political ideology that does not align exactly with his or her own.
This is the great paradox of liberalism: Its very name suggests freedom of speech, while in practice, this is not the case. As a liberal, I agree that the murder of Trayvon Martin and the consequent trial was an absolute injustice. However, as a liberal, I also agree with your right to disagree with me.
Being liberal used to mean being willing to engage in debate — it meant that I had a stance, yes, and I held strongly to it. It did not mean, however, that if you agreed with the ruling in the George Zimmerman trial, then you were a racist. I was the one who was supposed to be open-minded, to be liberal — not a name-caller.
The issue, then, is who has come to own the term “liberal.” Much like the term “conservative,” which has been hijacked by the far-right Tea Party movement, the term “liberal” now seems to be owned by the ultra far-left. As liberals, we have become intolerant of intolerance, and a movement that was once multidimensional has become monolithic.
Whereas in the 1960s and 1970s being a liberal meant opposing the Vietnam War and supporting civil rights, a liberal ideology today supports the “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel” movement, backing international alienation of America’s strongest ally in the Middle East.
Moreover, the current state of bipartisan politics in the United States reflects the increasing importance of adhering to extremist interpretations of “liberal” or “conservative” in order to retain political support. A moderate political candidate simply would not succeed in this day and age; candidates must espouse extremist political ideologies to even have a chance at winning. The Tea Party movement itself attributed Mitt Romney’s loss in the 2012 Presidential election to his being “too moderate.”
I like to think that I am a liberal in the more classical sense of the word. Moving forward, however, I have chosen to identify as a “moderate liberal,” and I am looking to engage in political discussions with those “moderate conservatives” who similarly see the inherent difficulty in identifying simply as “conservative.”
Perhaps we will both walk away, our minds unchanged, but more knowledgeable. Perhaps we will walk away more passionate about the beliefs we already held. Perhaps together we can make more progress and identify solutions to the most pressing issues we face today, something our colleagues and elected representatives seem to have forgotten about.
Alexandra Friedman is a College junior from Marietta, Ga. studying diplomatic history. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.